Beginner prop makers often want to know how much money a prop maker earns. Even experienced prop makers want to know, just to compare their earnings to what is typical in the industry. These numbers are hard to come by because of the range of ways a prop maker can earn money, the vast variety of industries a prop maker can work in, and the wide spectrum in expertise of prop makers (a beginner prop maker who constructs apple crates is probably making a far different wage than a veteran who machines intricate aluminum mechanisms). Still, we have to start somewhere.
The United States Bureau of Labor keeps statistics on National Industry-Specific Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates. Now, they do not list “prop maker” as an occupation, so we have to look at a few related and similar fields to hone in on what a US prop maker might be making. I’ve pulled some numbers from their most recent report, which was May 2012 1.
First, a couple of caveats. The major one is that this data does not include self-employed workers. According to the IRS, if you get paid with a 1099, even if it is in a situation where you are “employed” by a company, they consider you self-employed. Many prop makers earn some or even all of their income in this way, so it really skews the data. I’ve found that it is the smaller and lower-paying gigs that will often pay you with a 1099 (not always true, but true more often than not), so these numbers are probably higher than what most prop makers earn.
As another caveat, if you look at the data yourself, you will find “annual mean wages” listed that make it seem like these workers are raking it in. However, these annual wages are calculated by multiplying the hourly wage by a typical “full-time” schedule, and do not reflect what someone actually earns in a year. Most prop makers do not work full-time every year, and even so-called “full-time” jobs at regional theatres are actually seasonal contracts ranging from 28-42 weeks per year. I’ve always found that the hourly wages offered me were well above minimum wage, but it is very difficult to string together enough jobs and gigs to work full-time year-round.
For the table, I looked at two categories: “Theatre Companies and Dinner Theatres”, and “Motion Picture and Video Exhibition”. Neither category has a “prop maker” listing, so I chose the occupation titles which I thought a prop maker would likely be categorized under. For Theatre Companies, those categories were “craft artists” and “fine artists”, while in Motion Pictures, I chose “fine artists” and “artists and related workers, all others”. Feel free to explore the data on your own and look at other industries or occupations; I am not presenting this information as the definitive guide to prop makers’ wages, but rather as my own personal best guess of what might be the wages of some prop makers.
Occupation Title Employment Median hourly wage Mean hourly wage
Theatre Companies and Dinner Theatres
Craft Artists 230 18.89 18.86
Fine Artists 100 19.03 20.67
Motion Picture and Video Exhibition
Fine Artists 2400 27.10 30.45
All Others 390 33.89 33.86
Despite all of my caveats and excuses, these numbers do tell us a few things. First, that the movies employ far more people than theatre. Second, that similar occupations are making around one-and-a-half times as much in movies than in theatre, at least on an hourly basis.
Another possible surprise is the small number of full-time occupations in theatre. The 330 combined craft artists and fine artists would likely include not just the people in the props shop, but also the costume shop and paints departments. That’s a tiny amount of people. Remember, though that these numbers do not include self-employed workers, of which there are many. Also, in larger markets and commercial theatre, many prop makers would be working for independent shops and studios, rather than theatre companies.
http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm, May 2012 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, United States, accessed April 1, 2013. ↩
By the time you read this, I should be in Milwaukee for the 53rd annual conference of the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT). This is the largest US conference dedicated solely to design, production and technology in theatre and other live entertainment. If you follow me on Twitter, I’ll be twitting about events during the conference. I thought I’d take a moment to share some events and sessions that may be of interest to props people who will be there.
First up, as if I haven’t written about it enough already, is my book signing. Stage Directions Magazine is hosting the signing on Friday, March 22nd, at 12:30 pm, at Booth 100, located in the far corner of the exhibition (to the left of the entrance, on the side of the hall with Cover the Walls).
In the same vein, be sure to check out the book signing for The Properties Director’s Handbook by Sandra Strawn. It will be held at the USITT Booth/Market Place on Friday, at 4:30 pm. The book is a great complement to my own; Sandy was also the technical editor on my book.
The Society of Properties Artisan Managers (S*P*A*M) has a booth at the Expo; I will be behind the counter on Saturday morning from 9:30-11am. Come check it out at table 670, in front of the USITT Booth & Marketplace, and right across from IATSE Local One’s booth.
If you go to the New Product Showcase (often called “Swag and Brag”, held Thursday night from 7-9pm), keep your eyes and ears open for Stagebitz. They will be giving away copies of my book, as well as copies of The Properties Directors Handbook. Check out their booth as well, #1260 in the far corner diagonally opposite from Stage Directions’.
A few panels devoted to props have caught my eye this year:
On Wednesday morning at 8am (yikes!) is “3D printing for the Stage”. One of the presenters, Owen Collins, was featured in my own article on 3D printing, “Printing a Set“.
Wednesday at 1pm is a session on stage firearm safety called “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out!” Despite the accidents that have happened in the past, I still hear horror stories of dangerous practices with firearms on stage, so this should be a very useful session for any prop master dealing with weapons.
At 6pm on Wednesday is “Wireless Light and Motion for Props Masters”. The presenters include the guys at RC4 Wireless, who make small wireless dimmers and radio control devices intended for theatre.
Thursday morning at 9:30am is “Reimagining Theatre with Green Ideals”. While it’s not specifically geared toward props, it does involve set design and production, so props people may get something out of it.
On Friday at 2:30pm is perhaps one of the most promising sessions on props: “Grave Matters.” With discussions about stage gore, severed limbs and dead bodies, it should be a bloody good time. With my former instructor Tom Fiocchi as one of the presenters, it should be fairly high-energy as well.
Saturday has another 8am session (bleh) called “Preparing Props People”. While it is focused on what educators should be teaching future props masters, students and early career props people may find it useful to see if their own education is complete enough.
At 2pm on Saturday, Donyale Werle will be discussing the art of green scenery. Donyale won the Tony last year for Peter and the Starcatcher, as well as a Lucille Lortel Award for the off-Broadway production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (which I was assistant props master on). Her talks on using recycled materials for sets and props are always enlightening.
Sandy also happens to be the technical editor for my book. Both of our books are being published by Focal Press. Between the two, they cover two of the major aspects of props: building props, and managing a prop shop. I asked Sandy a few questions about how the website came about and what we can expect from her new book.
What prompted you to first create the Properties Director Handbook website?
Sandy: I was prompted to initially start the handbook from the SPAM (Society for Properties Artisan Managers) discussions at our national conferences. As someone who has been doing this for almost three decades I realized many of our incoming prop masters were asking us “old timers” among the SPAM network many of the same questions: how to organize a shop, how to effectively manage a build, how to write a prop list and work with stage management in updates, etc. I also teach this as part of my arc of training in the prop curriculum. I found myself emailing out my handouts to folks in the business and they would often comment to me, “You should write a book.” I decided to try and compile the information in one spot and was granted a sabbatical from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee to create my website. I wanted it to be a free textbook available to all those folks who teach the props classes in university programs, as well as to prop professionals or community prop people who need to understand the process of being a prop master or props director.
How has the website been translated into this new book?
Sandy: Seeing the success of my website, Focal Press expressed interest in making a book from part of the chapters I had on the website. Over the past summer I re-worked the webpage into a more condensed book form, now available online from Routledge Press and all the usual online book selling sites.
I have updated my website pretty much continuously since I created it in 2008. As I re-worked the chapters to make them over into a book, I ended up pretty much re-writing and updating everything. I did a new survey on prop salaries and contracts and that information is included in the book as well as some better illustrations of paperwork. The book covers about two-thirds of what is on the site and focuses primarily on the properties director’s process of taking a show from initial script reading through opening. These chapters tend to be the ones most viewed on my site and I think are the ones most relevant to those folks who are teaching prop classes. The web site has many more links and examples of prop lists, show reports, photographs of shops and props, and additional “chapters” on setting up a safe and happy prop shop. Anyone who utilizes the book will find the website a convenient resource for additional reading and research materials as well as interesting examples of prop work and prop shops around the United States.
I wrote this primarily as a textbook for undergraduate props training but I know many beginning prop professionals would find it useful as well. My hope is, in combination with your excellent book on the “how to do” part of making props, this book will help theatre folks understand the “how to manage” part of doing props.
What do you feel are the biggest misconceptions about what a prop director/master does?
Sandy: The biggest misconception about what a prop master does is about the range of skills an effective prop master must have in order to do the job well. Not only does the person need to be able to shop, but to create props the artisans must know sewing, welding and metal working, furniture construction and restoration, plastics construction, upholstery, faux painting, radio and pneumatic controls, calligraphy, graphics layout, molding and casting, leather work, painting and portraiture with acrylics and watercolors, floral arrangement, sculpture and 3D carving, especially with foam, electrical construction and wiring, crafts, photography, fabric dyeing and distressing, matting and framing, draping, fabric layout, pattern making, musical instrumentation, weaponry, pyrotechnics… to name a few.
Layer that on to the management side of being a props director and master, where an effective prop person must be highly organized, creative, have an eye for detail, flair for design, creative adaptability (the “what if…”), be self motivated, and be willing to do all that and more as part of a collaborative design and production process. Whew! I’m exhausted just talking about it!
There is no prop “store” where we can run out and buy all the props; eBay comes close, but our budgets are never enough and those pesky designers always want something so specific it must be created in the shop. That’s what we do as prop people.
I’m surprised more props people do not know about The Prop Master by Amy Mussman. No other book more clearly defines how to be a prop master in a contemporary setting. With a publish date of 2008, it is also amongst the most up-to-date props books out there. I feel strongly that if you read and reread this book as well as studying the Properties Directors Handbook by Sandra Strawn, you are armed with as much information as possible to prop a show short of actual experience. This is the book you want if you are in school and someone tells you, “You are the props master on the next show,” and you have no idea what that entails. It is amazing that until two years ago, a book like this had not been written.
Keep in mind that this book will not show you how to build any props. It focuses solely on the management and process of propping a theatrical show. Perhaps it is also useful to a prop master on a film, though I have no experience in that arena so I cannot say for certain.
The beginning of the book is filled with the important task of defining what props are, what props do, what a prop master does, what other props people do, and how it relates to the other departments and to the production as a whole. One of my favorite parts is where Mussman spells out a list of the basic props that a prop stock should have. From there, it delves into what skills and personal attributes a props master should develop to succeed. Where a props artisan can find success by perfecting various technical and vocational skills, a prop master’s greatest path to success is honing interpersonal skills and the proper forms of etiquette; in essence, getting people to “like you”. This book breaks that down into much more realistic and better-phrased terms than I just did. It breaks down the way many theatres are organized, how a props master relates to these various departments, and what is expected of a prop master in a professional setting.
From there, Mussman dives into how to achieve what is expected of you. Drawing on her over ten years of experience, it describes how to set up an ideal prop shop and how to organize your files. From there, she describes how to proceed through the process, beginning when you are first chosen as the prop master and receive a script, through rehearsals, into tech and when performances begin.
Not content with presenting all that information, she also includes safety information, a theatrical glossary, and a whole chapter of tips and tricks for prop-making.
In short, I cannot emphasize how important this book is for the beginning prop master and for our industry as a whole. If you were picking someone randomly to prop master a show, you can say, “I need you to be the prop master. Here is your instruction manual.”
As I mentioned earlier, this book goes well when combined with the Properties Directors Handbook. Read them both. I’ve written about the difference between a prop master versus a properties director; while they are distinct terms, they are often similar positions and career paths, and the information in each is complementary and often overlapping.
I’ve decided to incorporate some book reviews into my blog. Books about props are few and far between, so these won’t be fresh reviews of books hot off the press. I will, however, start with one of the newer books. If I ever actually convince you to purchase a book from Amazon, keep in mind that by using the links in my post, I will get a small kickback from them. The price you pay will be the same, but my happiness will be higher, and isn’t that what really matters?
The Sixth Edition of Theatrical Design and Production, by Michael Gillette was published in 2008. Gillette, a retired professor at the University of Arizona, first published this seminal textbook in 1987. Though pricey (it is a textbook, after all), it has not become the go-to text for stagecraft without earning it.
My examination of it will focus solely on the prop-specific parts, though the book does cover all aspects of technical theatre. It is important to note I am looking at the sixth edition; this version has seen a substantial reworking of the properties chapter through input by Sandra Strawn in particular, and the members of S*P*A*M in general. This gives the book more authority out of any other available books on how many prop shops in American regional and educational theatres are run. Between this and Strawn’s own “Properties Directors Handbook“, you get a good sense of the “standard practices.” This chapter does well as a guide for a college class, either as a section on props in a general stagecraft class, or as a springboard for developing an entire syllabus.
The first half of the chapter deals with the process and organization of propping a show. Most prop books deal mainly with the craft side; Gillette takes the reader through the whole process step-by-step, from the moment you find out what show you are propping, through initial prop lists and planning meetings, on to rehearsals and tech, and into the opening and running of the show, ending finally with strike. Other than Amy Mussman’s The Prop Master and Strawn’s Handbook, few books lay out the process in such a clear fashion, and none have the advantage of incorporating the experience of prop directors from many of our major regional theatres.
The second half focuses on prop craft. Prop furniture construction shows four apparently common wood joints: open and closed dowel, pocket hole, and biscuit. I personally love the pocket hole; the biscuit is indispensable for long end joints, and open doweling is great for repair work, particularly on chairs. I’d like to add to his definition of a jig: “A device used [to] hold pieces together in proper positional relationship.” “Pieces” can mean either the various pieces of material you are using, or it can mean the tools and the material. In other words, a jig can also be used as a guide to keep the tool in a proper positional relationship with the material.
The section on upholstering and drapery is very informative and makes a nice comprehensive introduction to the subject. The remaining section on “crafts” seems to deal mainly with the most toxic and least environmentally-friendly materials and processes one can use in props. There is an interesting mini-tutorial on using spray urethane foam (eg, Great Stuff) to make rigid molds. Though clever, I’ve found spray foam to be finicky to work with. Great Stuff has a Threshold Limit Value of .005, making it 4,000 times more toxic than turpentine, and 100,000 times more toxic than acetone. Likewise, using heat to shape plastic, or working with fiberglass, requires much more attention to safety than Gillette implies, though to be fair, he does implore the reader to seek out proper safety procedures on their own.
He also pushes aside papier-mâché too quickly. In a comment on my post on “Coating Foam”, Mary Robinette Kowal points out that papier-mâché on top of foam can actually be stronger than fiberglass. It is also that rare type of material and process that is both friendlier to the environment and better for your health. The paste is made from wheat, and the paper can be rescued from the trash for reuse. While the wheat-paste is usually laced with rat poison to discourage vermin from eating it, the rest of the ingredients are practically edible (note: please don’t eat papier-mâché). I’m not saying it’s a magic cure-all that can replace all other craft processes; also, I understand that Gillette is describing the current industry as is, rather than proposing a new direction it should take.
Back to the review. Information of interest to the props person can be found in other chapters of the book as well. Chapter 10 has a good introduction to the types of hand tools, power tools, and construction materials found in prop shops and scene shops. With a 2008 publication date, these are probably the most up-to-date descriptions of building materials available to the theatre-maker today, including all the synthetic and engineered products that are so difficult to keep track of. This chapter is also a better source for the safety information that is not included in the chapter on properties, with the assumption being that you would read this chapter first.
The section on fasteners, glues, construction hardware and stage hardware, though not as comprehensive as The Backstage Handbook, is more descriptive, and its use comes in describing the most commonly-used items, rather that every possible iteration. The section on safety equipment is so brief it feels like an afterthought, and does nothing to address the most common areas of concern for a beginner: the difference between impact and chemical-splash goggles, the various types of respirators, and choosing the right kind of glove for working with chemicals. Using this book for a class would certainly require supplementing it with a text like The Health & Safety Guide for Film, TV & Theater by the tireless Monona Rossol. Learning how to create props without the proper safety precautions is like learning how to drive without learning to use turn signals, checking your mirrors, wearing your seat belt, or reading road signs.
Chapter 11 on scenic production techniques is also useful information for the props artisan. Though we seldom build flats, the techniques used in building flats come in handy for prop carpentry projects. Likewise, the book does a wonderful job of describing welding, soldering, and making construction drawings as well. I particularly relished the section on stressed-skin platforms and look forward to trying some of the techniques in future prop-making.
Gillette also touches on building rocks, trees, and creating objects out of foam, all necessary skills for the well-rounded props artisan. He’s a little incorrect in some of his definitions though. STYROFOAM™ Brand Foam is a registered trademark of the Dow Chemical Company for their extruded polystyrene foam, not expanded as Gillette writes. It is usually sold in blue sheets for insulating buildings and is indeed fire resistant. Different types of Styrofoam insulation can be pink or even white, though still fire resistant. Dow also makes Styrofoam in white and green for the craft and floral market, but I could not discern the fire resistance of these kinds. Disposable foam products, like foam cups, coolers or packaging materials, are not made by Dow, hence not STYROFOAM™ Brand Foam. These are usually made out of expanded polystyrene beads, and is often referred to as “bead foam”. This is what Gillette is talking about when he refers to the course texture left from cutting through foam, or the “foam sawdust” from sawing. You can also by bead foam in large sheets similar to Styrofoam. Though both expanded and extruded polystyrene are generically referred to as “Styrofoam” here in the US, it is important to note that bead foam (expanded polystyrene) is not fire-resistant and can not be used untreated or left exposes on the theatrical stage. The multitude of plastics and synthetic materials available to today’s prop maker is confusing enough without a book as commonly used as Gillette’s muddying up the next generation with erroneous information.
The chapter on scene painting (chapter 12) is also useful for a props artisan, particularly the section on texturing. The chapter on electrical theory and practice (chapter 15), though interesting on its own, does not deal much with the kind of wiring a props person may need to do. Chapter 19 (costume construction) is notable in that it describes many of the same tools, materials and techniques necessary for soft goods work, such as curtains and drapes, Likewise, the information on millinery, costume crafts and masks is very applicable to the crafting of three-dimensional prop pieces, and may be incorporated into a lesson or class on props.
Though I’ve pointed out a few shortcomings and errors in this book, let me reiterate what an incredible resource Gillette has created in the latest edition of his book. As I said at the beginning, the chapter on props can easily become the outline for an entire class.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies